Marco Island News, Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Could this bird close Marco's Beaches?

Case in Point for Marco Islander's:  No one wishes for any species to slip into extinction.  But in Long Island's  Hamptons, the delicate desires of a tiny bird are taking precedence over the rights of humans.

Many are affected by the regulations of the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, this year enjoying its 25th anniversary. While it's difficult to throw a stone in the nation's capital without hitting an environmentalist, many affected by the regulations of the act say the extreme policies and the financial burdens it places on taxpayers is for the birds.  A case in point is that of the Atlantic Coast piping plover (Charadrius melodus).

In the late 1950s the number of plovers began to decline. In 1972, the National Audubon Society placed the piping plover on its "blue list" of birds in serious trouble. Through private organizations and informal mechanisms the issue soon was put on the radar screen of the Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, which added the piping plover to the endangered-species list in 1986.

The most recent figures available from the FWS show that in the 10 states that constitute the Atlantic Coast zone, nearly $2 million in federal and state money was spent in 1993 on efforts to save the plover, a stocky shorebird weighing in at just under 2 ounces. The 1993 expenditures do not include the enormous expenses incurred by individual landowners, businesses or town and county governments. The plover's dwindling population apparently is the result of their discomfort in their breeding grounds.

The FWS has divided the breeding area of the species into three zones--the Atlantic Coast, which extends from Newfoundland to South Carolina; the Great Lakes beaches; and the major river systems and wetlands of the Northern Great Plains.  The plovers arrive in these areas in late March or early April and the breeding season continues until the first part of September -- which is the prime beach season for residents and tourists.

Because plovers mate and hatch their young in beach areas, and because the chicks are extremely small and their markings blend into the natural surroundings, people are a natural hazard.  Also, the plovers and their chicks are highly susceptible to predators such as foxes, raccoons, possums, dogs and even other birds.

Eastern Long Islanders, who enjoy some of the most scenic shoreline in North America, are intimately familiar with the burdens imposed by protecting the plover.  Small businesses, such as gift shops, restaurants and hotels, depend on the seasonal beach population for their livelihoods.  However, because the beaches of the East End of Long Island are prime breeding ground for the plovers, large areas of the beach randomly are cordoned off so the plover may enjoy uninterrupted breeding and hatching.

According to Terchunian, "It's like being in negotiations with someone who doesn't want to negotiate. The FWS agrees to one thing, then comes back wanting more. You wouldn't believe what we do to make them happy. When people first hear about what we go through, they think it's funny. But when they're directly affected by the regulations, they get angry."

The mayor of West Hampton Dunes, Gary Viglianti, also is well-aware of the bird problems.  It's early in the breeding season, but already he has confronted a serious dilemma. "We have a case," says Viglianti, "where a plover has nested 10 feet from our main road. The FWS has recommended we close the road to everyone except essential people because the bird may want to cross the road. What do I do--get some nazi traffic cop to stand there and decide who's essential and who isn't? We're coming into peak beach season, and this is the only road in and out of the village. How much sense does this make?"

Viglianti has years of experience with just this type of problem, and he knows the FWS guidelines well. "What we do" the mayor says, "is move the nest, chicks and all. It's really very simple: You take a 2-pound coffee can, carefully put it over the nest, push it in the sand, and with a shovel dig deep below the nest and gently carry it to where you want it. The trick is that you move slow enough so the bird will watch you moving the nest and hopefully follow." Viglianti laughs, saying, "Some of these recommendations are too much, but you know we're doing all we can for the plovers, and still I've had the FWS imply that if I don't put their recommendations into place I'd be violating the ESA and they could put me in jail."

It's the day-to-day attention to the nesting plovers that keeps local residents of these seaside communities on their toes. They gingerly tiptoe along the seashore, ever vigilant, keeping their eyes peeled for plover sightings, prepared to provide the necessary assistance ... if first they obtain the appropriate plover permits.

Take, for instance, predator "enclosures." These are cages of welded wire fencing 36 inches high and 5 feet in diameter that must be placed around a nest. The FWS guidelines say this job is best accomplished with a crew of two to four people and that construction first should be practiced on a "dummy nest" so that enclosing time does not exceed 20 minutes.  Should a nest then be spotted and action required, written permission to enclose must be obtained from the state environmental office, which will designate that the practiced plover enclosers are official FWS agents.

In fact, just about any activity that comes within earshot of a plover requires at least one permit, if not several.  To conduct construction of a waterway project that might interfere with the breeding of the plovers, for instance, the Corps of Engineers was required to obtain the blessing of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, New York Department of State and the National Park Service as well as the FWS.

Additional FWS guidelines call for setting up a minimum 50-meter buffer around breeding areas "in instances where plovers are especially intolerant of human presence." And, "on portions of beaches that receive heavy human use, areas where territorial plovers are observed should be symbolically fenced to prevent disruption of displays and courtship."

These are just two recommendations in nearly 20 pages of guidelines. All of this fencing and cordoning off of beaches occurs during tourist season, when it is estimated that on the East End of Long Island 18 million people will attempt to visit the beaches. To enforce such stringent guidelines, towns and villages are forced to keep tabs on nests by engaging a small army of paid and volunteer monitors and stewards who literally patrol the beaches and report violations. And, should the unspeakable occur, the dread "taking", the event is treated very much like a homicide.

"It's like a swat team," says Terchunian. "The area around the dead chick is cordoned off like a police scene and a representative of the FWS, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation office and the local Harbor Master come in to investigate the death.  Sometimes they even do autopsies on the chicks to determine the cause of death".  At each step of the process, taxpayers pick up the tab.

"A lot of us like the plovers, but I'm not an advocate of irresponsible spending," says Viglianti. "$7 million over three years, not including the lost revenue because of building restrictions, is a lot of money for 1,400 pair of birds."  And their numbers are growing. "First FWS said they needed 1,200 pair so we hit that mark, and now they say they need 2,000 pair. It seems as though this has become an industry.  If the plovers are taken off the list, I guess some people won't have a job."

According to Anne Hecht, an FWS endangered-species biologist, Viglianti may not be too far off in his assessment. The FWS' objective is to increase and maintain 2,000 pair of plovers for five years.  "Less than half the birds survive the first year" says Hecht.  "But three-quarters who do survive will then survive an average of four or five years."  Sounds easy enough, but Hecht adds that "the things we're doing for the piping plover are only good as long as they're being done, and it looks like this is going to be a long-term effort."

Maybe very long term!  The task of saving the plover has a little hitch that likely will make saving them more difficult than even the respected biologist may have anticipated.  It is widely known that piping plovers are considered a culinary delicacy in Latin America, where they are eaten in large numbers.  Delights such as broiled plover on toast, bisque of plover and roasted plover are just a few of the recipes available in South and Central America. Based on the 1993 figures of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent to protect them, plovers are among the most expensive delicacy in the world, running just over $300 an ounce.  Ah, but mucho de-licious!



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